Taylor Swift, the ambassador of zero chill, spent nine days advertising the debut of her music video for “Bad Blood,” which finally aired during Sunday night’s Billboard Music Awards. The song is the worst track from her chart-topping album, 1989; the new version is redeemed only by an appearance from young Taylor’s only black rapper friend, Kendrick Lamar. The clip was previewed by Sin City-styled Instagram posters for the posse of incredibly famous women making cameos, each choosing an exaggerated alter ego to represent her action-star persona, and each playing a role in solidifying Taylor Swift’s self-affirming brand as the Leader of Young Women Everywhere. I knew we were in trouble when we tuned in.
To be fair, the video is fine. It’s even kind of cool! It opens with a fight scene where Swift’s character (uh, Catastrophe) is double-crossed by her presumed ally Arsyn (played by Selena Gomez), who kicks her out of a window (and through the shattering heart of Frank Miller) before running off into the night. What follows is an endless stream of three-second intros to badass women who parade through Swift’s fictional badass world, where they’re ostensibly training for an ultimate showdown with Arsyn’s faceless crew. Look, there’s Lena Dunham smoking a cigar like some sort of mob boss! There’s Zendaya (who is hands-down the most amazing of the cast in this video), Karlie, Serayah, and Hailee emulating characters from various existing action and sci-fi movies! We knew to expect Mariska Hargitay and Ellen Pompeo (whose famous respective TV characters, Olivia Benson and Meredith Gray, serve as the namesakes for Swift’s cats), but why are Jessica Alba and CINDY CRAWFORD in this thing again? This is bonkers. What the hell is going on here?
If we pan out for a second, it becomes obvious. Why has Taylor decided to parade this carefully selected group of 18 women through a four-minute video with basically no plot-line other than to play-fight each other? Because she wants us to know that she can. Because she is one of the most powerful women in entertainment. And because Taylor Swift wants to be clear: She is able to call whoever she wants to come fight on her team, and they will fight for her. But what exactly constitutes “her team”? She’s said that she’s holding it down for “all girls,” but is she really?
By now it’s no secret that “Bad Blood” was originally inspired by Swift’s feud with Katy Perry. They both dated John Mayer, though their reported beef comes from more professional roots: specifically, allegations that Swift “stole” some of Perry’s tour backup dancers. (Correction: It was the other way around.) (Two young, white musicians claiming ownership over dancers they direly needed to bring “Dark Horse” or “Shake It Off” to the stage is almost Too Much.) Shots were fired by both camps over Twitter, and now, in the “Bad Blood” video, Swift’s “arch-nemesis” wears a wig that’s cut to Katy Perry’s signature style. And just like that, what would easily be a rad rallying of women who will readily fuck you up in the name of Misandry was swiftly turned into a Mean Girls corralling of cool kids delivering a not-so-subtle message to other women: You’re either with or against us.
The troubling, underlying takeaway from this video is that Swift wants her fans to know that she’s the most important of all the important kids and that she’s become somewhat untouchable as a result. And that’s the worst kind of way to tout your championing of women (and celebrity hashtag-feminism)—to wrap it up in a blanket of cool and use it as a weapon! When Swift went up to accept one of the eight Billboard Music Awards awards she won later that night, she took the stage as some sort of matriarch for the future of teen babies everywhere, telling her fans she “loved all girls.” Then she went on to thank “all the teen girls I talk to on the internet about our feelings,” and those who “teach me the teen slang.” The teen slang!
That teen market is crucial for Taylor, not only for her mission to be Queen of the Basics, but also because interacting with her teen fans on social media is immediately correlated to her success. On Sunday night and Monday morning, “Bad Blood” topped the Billboard Real Time charts and Social 50. (History has also shown that if Taylor Swift even mentions your name on social media, your own social network numbers will increase immensely; each guest in the video was promoted by Swift through Instagram and Twitter at least once.) Once the song was trending on social media, it redirected fans to her Vevo page that hosted the video; and clicks on her video means more money for her. (I have written about the fascinatingly twisted relationship between music video branding and artist’s bank accounts at length before, if you’re curious about how deep the brainwashing goes.)
Moreover, yesterday we all found out Swift is gonna be on the cover of the noted feminist bastion that is Maxim magazine, topping their Hot 100 list in a story is written by feminist activist and writer Roxane Gay. Per Capital New York:
... as Roxane Gay, the author of Bad Feminist, points out in the essay on beauty she contributed to the magazine, “Taylor Swift is more than her looks. She’s also a fiercely talented young woman who embraces feminism, tops the charts, and dances like no one’s watching, even when millions are.”
The interview goes on to mention that Gay is a proponent for more diverse image of feminism in men’s magazines (and beyond):
Gay’s essay advocates for the broadening the beauty standard to include a “broader range of beautiful skin, fuller bodies and complicated surfaces.” [She] told Capital she decided to publish with Maxim because she has been “encouraged by the changes Kate Lanphear has made since taking over the helm,” [...] “I also think it’s pretty radical to write about feminism for a so-called ‘lad mag.’”
She’s not wrong! Swift is a fine enough role model and a not a bad person for young women to look up to! In a clip released from her Maxim interview, Swift talks about her view of feminism:
I used to say, “Oh, feminism’s not really on my radar,” it was because when I was just seen as a kid, I wasn’t as threatening. I didn’t see myself being held back until I was a woman. Or the double standards in headlines, the double standards in the way stories are told, the double standards in the way things are perceived. A man writing about his feelings from a vulnerable place is brave; a woman writing about her feelings from a vulnerable place is oversharing or whining. Misogyny is ingrained in people from the time they are born. So to me, feminism is probably the most important movement that you could embrace, because it’s just basically another word for equality.
That’s a perfectly common and privileged definition of feminism! One that I feel like I’ve heard before!
That said, Gay’s most glaringly right when she says we should be looking for beacons of feminism outside of the tall, skinny, blonde, classically/traditionally beautiful tropes that dominate the covers of male-oriented magazines like Maxim. Taylor Swift, however, is not the person to break that mold. And with the back-to-back release of “Bad Blood” —on a branded platform that recently declared her Woman of the Year— and her new cover of Maxim, her attempts to position herself as the Modern Feminist of the Future feel awfully cynical. (Bonus cringe: This behind-the-scenes shot of the “Bad Blood” babes sexily posing with In-N-Out burgers is a weird and vain attempt to appear casual and human that was vaporized yesterday afternoon when Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé actually chowed down on burgers in their “Feeling Myself” video.) While most will treat the “Bad Blood” clip as the birth of a powerful girl squad that takes no shit from anyone, Swift’s intimation that All Women unite under her command is self-serving, and only really empowering to her.
She deserves her fame, yes. She deserves to be celebrated as an entertainer, a savvy business person, and even a child savant of sorts. Her music speaks for itself: She has a huge share of great hit singles, her gawky award-show dancing is now a beloved part of her brand, and she has aligned herself with self-described, mission-affirming feminists like Lena Dunham. But it’s important to take a second to remember that her brand of feminism is deceptive in its inclusiveness; it’s frequently for show, or worse, only for Instagram.